Foresight Update 52

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Inside Foresight: Greenpeace and Nanotechnology

by Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Glenn Harlan Reynolds Greenpeace UK has just released a report on nanotechnology and artificial intelligence entitled Future Technologies, Today's Choices: Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; A Technical, Political and Institutional Map of Emerging Technologies.

That Greenpeace is getting more interested in nanotechnology isn't such a surprise. What might surprise some is that the Greenpeace report is surprisingly moderate, considering the source. So although the report has already attracted considerable criticism (you can read a sampling of that criticism at "Greenpeace Wades Into Nano Debate With Report That Calls For Caution" and at "The Greenpeace Report, Part II: NanoWars") I'm going to emphasize the positive. Because there are, in fact, a number of real positives to the Greenpeace report.

The biggest piece of news is that the report pooh-poohs the idea of a moratorium on nanotechnology, despite calls from other environmental groups for one ("Watchdogs Say Stop Nanotech, Start Worldwide Dialogue"). Instead, it says (p. 44) that a moratorium on nanotechnology research "seems both unpractical and probably damaging at present." The report also echoes warnings from others that such a moratorium might simply drive nanotechnology research underground.

Though largely missed in the few news stories to cover the report, this is a big deal. With a moratorium taken off the table, the question then becomes one of how, not whether, to develop nanotechnology.

The report also takes a rather balanced view of the technology's prospects. It notes that there has been a tendency to blur the distinction between nanoscale technologies of limited long-term importance (e.g., stain-resistant "nano-pants" as opposed to build-anything general assembler devices) so as to make incremental work look sexier than it is. This is important, because it means that the report's not-entirely-unreasonable worries about the dangers of nanomaterials are distinguishable from more science-fictional concerns of the Michael Crichton Prey variety. And that means that it will be harder for Greenpeace to conflate the two kinds of concerns itself, as has been done in the struggle against genetically-modified foods where opponents have often mixed minor-but-proven threats with major-but-bogus ones in a rather promiscuous fashion.

Indeed, it seems to me that nano-blogger Howard Lovy is right in saying ("Nanotechnology industry takes Greenpeace's bait"), "Take out the code words and phrases that are tailored to Greenpeace's audience, and you'll find some sound advice in there for the nanotech industry." Greenpeace is calling for more research into safety. Now is a good time to do that — even for the industry, which currently doesn't have a lot of products at risk. And this kind of research is the same thing that a lot of responsible nanotechnology researchers are calling for. Such research is likely to do more good than harm at blocking Luddite efforts to turn nanotechnology into the next GM food. As Rice University researcher Vicki Colvin recently noted in Congressional testimony:

The campaign against GMOs was successful despite the lack of sound scientific data demonstrating a threat to society. In fact, I argue that the lack of sufficient public scientific data on GMOs, whether positive or negative, was a controlling factor in the industry's fall from favor. The failure of the industry to produce and share information with public stakeholders left it ill-equipped to respond to GMO detractors. This industry went, in essence, from "wow" to "yuck" to "bankrupt." There is a powerful lesson here for nanotechnology.

She's right, and the nanotechnology industry would do well to take this lesson. As I wrote here a while back ("Visions of the Nanofuture"), there has been a tendency among some companies and researchers to pooh-pooh the prospects for advanced nanotechnology in the hopes of avoiding the attention of environmental activists. That obviously isn't working. The best defense against nano-critics is good, solid scientific information, not denial — especially given the strong promise of nanotechnology in terms of environmental improvement.

    With a moratorium taken off the table, the question then becomes one of how, not whether, to develop nanotechnology.    

Nanotechnology legislation currently before Congress calls for some investigation into these issues. I hope that by the time it passes, there will be more emphasis on exploring both the scientific and the ethical issues involved in nanotechnology's growth. That sort of vigorous engagement is likely to do more to encourage the success of nanotechnology than anything else that Congress can do at the moment.

This article was originally published at Tech Central Station "Greenpeace and Nanotechnology"

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a Foresight Director. You can email him at

Staff Changes

In this ever-changing world, we have two major staff changes to report: first, our beloved Director of Development, Yakira Heyman, has moved on to new challenges. However, we would not let her leave without first promising to attend future Foresight events, so we will still get to see her. Foresight's Board and officers extend our heartfelt thanks to her for her years of work and the joy she brought into our organization on a daily basis.

On the incoming side, we have our very first Washington Representative, Tim Kyger. Foresight's board of directors and I have known Tim for about twenty years. He was a Professional Staff Member of the Senate Commerce Committee, serving on the Committee's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space for two years. Before that he worked for six years for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), as Rohrabacher's legislative assistant for science, technology, environment, and space (Chairman Rohrabacher has served on the House Science Committee's Space Subcommittee for the 13 years he has been in Congress). We look forward to working with Tim as he educates Washington on molecular manufacturing.

— Christine Peterson, President, Foresight Institute

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Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents


Congressional Testimony by Christine Peterson

Molecular Manufacturing: Societal Implications of Advanced Nanotechnology

Testimony presented April 9, 2003 at the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives Hearing to examine the societal implications of nanotechnology and consider H.R. 766, The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.

First, I'd like to thank the Committee on Science for taking on the task of addressing the societal implications of nanotechnology. This challenging topic may emerge as the most difficult issue facing policymakers over the coming decades.

Humanity's drive to improve our control of the physical world is intrinsic to our species and has been in progress for millennia. A vast international economic and military momentum pushes us toward the ultimate goal of nanotechnology: complete control of the physical structure of matter, all the way down to the atomic level.

Confusion about nanotechnology

Before attempting to address societal issues, we need to clarify which stage of nanotechnology is being examined. Today the word is used in two very different ways:

Molecular manufacturing: the long-term goal

Christine Peterson testifying before CongressAdvanced nanotechnology, known as molecular manufacturing, will give the ability to construct a wide range of large objects inexpensively and with atomic precision. It will take us beyond materials and devices to complex systems of molecular machines, inspired by—but in some ways superior to—those found in nature.

Molecular manufacturing systems can be envisioned as factories operating at the nanometer level, including nanoscale conveyor belts and robotic arms bringing molecular parts together precisely, bonding them to form products with every atom in a precise, designed location (ref 2).

It is important not to minimize the technical challenge of such a complex systems engineering project. Indeed, new tools must be developed before beginning a direct attack on the problem. Nonetheless, ongoing research is building the needed technology base, and will eventually place enormous payoffs within reach.

These prospects have been known since the first technical publication on the topic in 1981 (ref 3), and substantial thought has been devoted to potential societal implications of molecular manufacturing. Foresight Institute was founded in 1986 to maximize the societal benefits and minimize the problems expected from advanced nanotechnology.

Potential benefits of molecular manufacturing

Gaining molecular-level control over the structure of matter will bring a wide variety of positive applications (ref 4):

These benefits should be attainable though the combined results of (1) a well-funded R&D program, (2) private sector efforts to bring down costs, and (3) public policy aimed at addressing the issues listed below.

Potential negative effects of molecular manufacturing

Powerful technologies bring problems as well as benefits, and advanced nanotechnologies are expected to bring problems of several sorts:

Reducing risks from molecular manufacturing

Individuals and organizations with legitimate concerns regarding advanced nanotechnology have suggested delays in development, even moratoria or bans. While these reactions are understandable, this approach was examined over a decade ago and rejected as infeasible (ref 4). Today, both public and private spending on nanotechnology is broadly international. Expected economic and military advantages are driving a technology race already underway. If law-abiding nations choose to delay nanotechnology development, they will relinquish the lead to others.

Non-U.S. locations have at least three advantages in the nanotechnology race: (1) labor costs for scientists and technologists are usually lower, (2) intellectual property rules are sometimes ignored, and (3) the former "brain drain" of technical talent to the U.S. is slowing and in some cases reversing. The U.S. and other democracies have no natural monopoly in developing this technology, and failure to develop it would amount to unilateral disarmament.

In developing a powerful technology , delay may seem to add safety, but the opposite could be the case for molecular manufacturing. A targeted R&D project today aimed at this goal would need to be large and, therefore, visible and relatively easy to monitor. As time passes, the nanoscale infrastructure improves worldwide, enabling faster development everywhere, including places that are hard to monitor. The safest course may be to create a fast-moving, well-funded, highly-focused project located where it can be closely watched by all interested parties. Estimates are that such a project could reach its goal in 10-15 years.

Specific ethical considerations

A study of ethical implications of advanced nanotechnology would need to address at least these factors:

Bottleneck: Lack of feasibility review

While the basics of molecular manufacturing have been in the literature for over a decade, controversy still continues about the technical feasibility of this goal.

We urgently need a basic feasibility review in which molecular manufacturing's proponents and critics can present their technical cases to a group of unbiased physicists for analysis.

If we are in fact on the pathway to building molecular machine systems, with all the benefits and problems that implies, policymakers need to know now in order to respond appropriately as this opportunity approaches.

The United States has a history of technological success in large systems engineering projects—it has been one of our primary strengths. But nanotechnology research is already worldwide, and there is no guarantee that the U.S, an ally, or other democracy will be the first to reach molecular manufacturing, and failure to do so would be militarily disastrous.

Such an ambitious R&D project requires, first, a decision to pursue the goal, and then substantial funding. Both of these are currently blocked by the lack of consensus on the technical feasibility of molecular manufacturing. Until this issue has been put to rest, neither a funded molecular manufacturing R&D project nor effective study of societal implications can be carried out.


  1. "National Nanotechnology Initiative: The Initiative and its Implementation Plan"
  2. Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation by K. Eric Drexler (Wiley, 1992).
  3. "Molecular engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation," K. E. Drexler (1981), PNAS 78:5275-5278.
  4. Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler (AnchorPress/Doubleday, 1986),
  5. Nanomedicine, Volume 1: Basic Capabilities by Robert Freitas (Landes Bioscience, 1999),
  6. Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution by K. Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson with Gayle Pergamit (Morrow, 1992),
  7. "Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology,"
  8. "Open Sourcing Nanotechnology Research and Development: Issues and Opportunities" Bryan Bruns (2001), Nanotechnology 12(3): 198-201, Updated version:

For More ...

On the Full Science Committee Hearing on The Societal Implications of Nanotechnology:

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From Foresight Update 52, originally published 31 August 2003.